In a few hours, the United States will have a new president. The pundits are talking about the high expectations that Barack Obama faces, but in a more meaningful sense, the bar has been set very low. That’s because Obama is taking office in a leadership vacuum that has gone on so long that people have forgotten what a little bit of leadership can accomplish.
Obama replaces a man who was not a leader so much as a dissenter, a resister, who thought America’s strength came not from action but from standing firm against it, whose reaction when the country was attacked was to run and hide for a day, whose defining political issue was a plan to phase out Social Security for most of the country while keeping it for himself. He was surrounded by people who didn’t think twice about breaking the law, who were ready to give up and move on when things got tough, who put compromise before principles, who were frightened of change. The absence of direction from these supposed leaders was so pervasive and so extended that many came to accept it as normal, but it is anything but normal.
Obama might turn out to be a visionary leader, a thinker with great ideas, as many are hoping, but it does not take any particular kind of person to erase the leadership vacuum he is stepping into. If the new president is merely willing to give his stamp of approval to the good ideas that come along and to allow progress to take place, that in itself is enough to change everything. Obama may, indeed, have been hinting at that a year ago when he suggested that the change he was campaigning for would not come from him personally, but would originate in all the people of the country.
The United States has just been through a period in which people were reluctant to talk about change on the telephone for fear of being heard by the NSA and whisked away to a foreign country by the CIA. But that period is over. Now imagine what can happen if ordinary people, people who may not necessarily have the courage of an Arianna Huffington or the vision of a Deepak Chopra, can talk openly about the work that needs to be done. When a country’s institutional leadership is not resisting the solutions to the country’s problems, a solution can come from anywhere. Many of these solutions have just been waiting for a chance to come out in the open. This year they may all hit at once. I know Obama will do more than just cheer us along, but if he were to do only that, it would be enough to show us how much difference leadership can make.